Wandering the West
February 21, 2012
Arizona turned 100 on Valentine’s Day. The Post Office unveiled a new postage stamp to mark the occasion, with the almost-obligatory Grand Canyon chosen for the birthday. The license plates proclaim Arizona as the "Grand Canyon State" and, of course, it is. But there’s so much more that’s off the radar.
I’ll confess I haven’t traveled the southernmost portion of Arizona or its western edge. But without knowledge of those hinterlands, I know there’s still plenty more to talk about than that famous landmark that slices through it. Here are some of my repeat visits.
I’ll agree that the Valley of the Sun, anchored by Phoenix, looks like a gravel pit with a bit of landscaping here and there, but it has some great destinations. For starters, there’s the Heard Museum in Phoenix, which has now expanded to include a Heard Museum North in Scottsdale. The Heard is the world’s foremost showcase of Native American arts and culture. You’ll even find presidential candidate and Senator Barry Goldwater’s collection of 437 historic Kachina dolls here.
Also in Scottsdale, if you’re interested in architecture and history, try Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home and architectural studio and campus. Taliesin West was a winter escape which itself came to exemplify Wright’s trademark style of bringing the outside into his structures. You can tour it by day or get a night tour.
Head farther west to Mesa for Falcon Field and two great aircraft museums. The Champlin Fighter Aircraft Museum has row after row of mostly World War Two fighters, while the Commemorative Air Force Museum has the big guns planes like B-17 and B-25 bombers. You can sign up for rides that generally consist of a loop over the nearby Superstition Mountains.
For pure scenery, there is of course the Grand Canyon. But try Canyon de Chelly, the only national park located totally on Indian lands. The three canyons that make up Canyon de Chelly are spectacular even without all the ruins in them. This is Navajo land, so you can choose from a self-guided driving tour or the real deal, going deep into the canyon on Navajo-led guided tours. If you have two hours for the round-trip hike, go to the White House Ruins, which will require some elevation gain.
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Other overlooked places include Globe and Miami, two mining towns dating back a century and pretty much frozen in another era, and Prescott, with its Victorian homes and famed bars of Whiskey Row, which lie across the street from one of the best town squares in America the square where the courthouse stands, surrounded by tall, leafy trees.
If you’re a baseball fan, you could be among the 1.5 million who pack stadiums in the 15-team Cactus League. Major-league teams practice here in the spring. Beginning March 2 and running through April 4, the teams play in small ballparks where fans have a chance to interact with players who become mostly unapproachable once they reach regular season and tighter security.
Sedona isn’t a great winter destination it’s high enough for snow and cold but in the spring, summer and fall it becomes Moab south, with hiking among sandstone mesa, mountain and road biking, and if you’re into it, more shops selling crystals than you can shake a magic wand at. For shoppers, galleries and jewelers abound.
Tucson does rank up there as a winter destination a little higher, cooler and greener than Phoenix. Outside town find Saguaro National Park and the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, with its collections of desert curiosities like misshapen cacti and wild javelina pigs. Drive by Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, where a ghost fleet of thousands of retired aircraft sit in neat rows in the dry desert sun.
Another thing to like about Arizona at one hundred is that it has taken the pressure off of Utah. We used to be a national leader in extreme-right-wing politics. Next to what’s coming out of Arizona’s capital the last few years, Utah’s legislature looks like a bunch of well-reasoned statesmen and women.
Writer, filmmaker and author Larry Warren has made the West his beat for the past three decades. He is the general manager of KPCW.